Film Review: The Power of the Dog (2021); Directed by Jane Campion

Film poster for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021)

Review

The Power of the Dog was Netflix’s latest and greatest (so far) attempt to secure an Oscar for Best Picture. It had to sting to lose to another streaming player, Apple TV+, which took home the gleaming statuette for crowd-favorite CODA. In addition to Best Picture, CODA also won in the categories of Best Adapted Screenplay (Sian Heder) and Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur, who is now the first Deaf man to win an acting Oscar). For the longest time in the campaigns leading up to the big night, it was The Power of the Dog’s night to shine. With 12 nominations across the board, how could it lose? But it did. In fact, Netflix’s powerhouse Western only took home one statuette on Oscars night — for Best Director (Jane Campion).

But let us not judge a film by its accolades. The truth is, The Power of the Dog is an incredibly powerful yet extremely subtle film, its brilliance easily overlooked if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

The Power of the Dog is an incredibly powerful yet extremely subtle film, its brilliance easily overlooked if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

Jane Campion’s searing portrait of toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality, set against the backdrop of Montana in the 1920s, is in my opinion one of the greatest films of the 21st-century so far, though it’ll probably be years down the line before the majority of cinephiles agree with me. In it, Benedict Cumberbatch gives what is perhaps his most unsympathetic performance yet. It’s arguably his best. As Phil Burbank, Cumberbatch is ruthless, sardonic, and haunted. Campion, who made history at this year’s Oscars ceremony for being the first woman to be nominated for two directing Oscars (winning this year), is a master at creating atmosphere. The vast and wide-open spaces of Montana make for an interesting canvas upon which she paints her tale. Each character, from Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank to Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered Rose Gordon, is given more than enough room to explore their respective neuroses, their own private darknesses that spill over into their interactions with each other and with the land itself.

Each character, from Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank to Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered Rose Gordon, is given more than enough room to explore their respective neuroses, their own private darknesses…

What makes The Power of the Dog so interesting as a Western is its multilayered exploration of queerness. Now, if you ask any historian worth their salt, they’ll tell you there was all kinds of gay stuff going down in the American West. Put frankly, cowboys were riding each other just as often as they were riding broncos. If you ask a heterosexual purist, they’ll tell you John Wayne would never. And Wayne probably wouldn’t have. But John Wayne wasn’t a real cowboy. He was mostly a fiction. An idealized idol. A paean to hyper-masculinity. Cumberbatch isn’t a real cowboy, either, but his portrayal of one is more honest than Wayne’s ever was. Sorry Duke.

Put frankly, cowboys were riding each other just as often as they were riding broncos.

The central conflict at the heart of The Power of the Dog is between Phil and Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In fact, the opening lines of the film (spoken by Peter) speak to this conflict, which the viewer has not yet been made privy to: “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” What kind of man indeed?

When we meet Peter, though, he looks ill-equipped to protect or save anyone. Lanky and effeminate, his first scene in the film shows him making paper flowers for table settings that Phil will soon sneer at. Looking more closely, the paper flowers could very well be a metaphor for Phil’s repressed homosexuality, which is why he views them with such disdain. Where Peter is delicate and precise, Phil is callous and bombastic. Peter moves through the world like every step must be taken gently, as if the slightest deviation may trigger an explosion or perhaps expose him to the world. Phil, however, revels in his contempt for all of humanity, but most especially for Rose, who ends up marrying his brother George (Jesse Plemons).

Peter moves through the world like every step must be taken gently, as if the slightest deviation may trigger an explosion or perhaps expose him to the world.

This isn’t the first mainstream Western film to address themes of homosexuality. The last really good Western we had that did so was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). But while Brokeback was at its essence a love story, The Power of the Dog is a story of an unhappy family in fractures. Don’t expect the spirits of Jack and Ennis to manifest in Phil and Peter, because that’s not the kind of story Campion is telling. In fact, a viewer not used to looking for queer subtext may miss that element of the film entirely, so subtle is its execution. While Phil’s queerness is thickly-veiled under layers of ostentatious brutality, Peter’s is as wide-open and hyper-visible as the plains which serve as the backdrop to Campion’s film.

While Phil’s queerness is thickly-veiled under layers of ostentatious brutality, Peter’s is as wide-open and hyper-visible as the plains which serve as the backdrop to Campion’s film.

I’m not going to do the film a disservice by spoiling the ending and telling you what happens, but it’s definitely a wow moment. It’s also calculatingly understated, like most of the elements in the film. I love a good film that doesn’t make an exhibition of itself. I like hints and silences and ruminations. Not everything has to explode in order to burn.

The Power of the Dog is available to stream on Netflix.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

120 Nominations. 23 Categories. 53 Films. One Big Night.

Did I really go through all of the nominations for this year’s Oscars to figure out which films received the most nominations? I did. This year, 53 different films have been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their cinematic excellence.

One question I ponder quite often when it comes to film is, “What separates a good film from a great film? A great film from an epic film?”

One question I ponder quite often when it comes to film is, “What separates a good film from a great film? A great film from an epic film?” Some of it boils down to personal taste, yes, but most cinephiles (yours truly included) would argue there are certain elements which comprise any film worth its stock, pun very much intended. The first and most important of these elements is cohesiveness. All the parts of a film must work in conjunction with one another to tell a certain story. You can have a great script but it’s worthless if you have mediocre actors reciting lines from it. You can have GOATs like Meryl Streep acting in your movie but if your script is subpar, no amount of Streeping will save it.

For me, a great film is a film where everything is not only in balance but complementary. There’s subtlety, nuance, and most important of all—craft.

For me, a great film is a film where everything is not only in balance but complementary. There’s subtlety, nuance, and most important of all—craft. A great actor can make you experience several different emotions in the same scene. A great set can transport you back through time. A great cinematographer can transcend time and space to make you see things in ways you’ve never seen them before. A score, crafted just so to ebb and flow within a film’s narrative, can emphasize elements that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

An epic film not only has all of the elements of a great film, but a certain je ne sais quoi that elevates it above the pack, that makes it timeless. An epic film is larger than life even when the story it’s telling is small in scope.

And an epic film? An epic film not only has all of the elements of a great film, but a certain je ne sais quoi that elevates it above the pack, that makes it timeless. An epic film is larger than life even when the story it’s telling is small in scope. It has a universality that makes it resonate with people from all walks of life, from all places and all times. When I think of epic films, I think of The Godfather. The Wizard of Oz. Gone with the Wind. Sunset Boulevard. Titanic. All of these have elements working in conjunction with one another, and all have not a small amount of magic cooked in for good measure. They quite possibly will outlast time, and rightfully so.

See below for a list of all the films nominated for an Academy Award this year. The number in parentheses beside each film indicates how many nominations it has received this Oscars season.

  • The Power of the Dog (12)
  • Dune (10)
  • Belfast (7)
  • West Side Story (7)
  • King Richard (6)
  • Don’t Look Up (4)
  • Drive My Car (4)
  • Nightmare Alley (4)
  • Being the Ricardos (3)
  • CODA (3)
  • Encanto (3)
  • Flee (3)
  • Licorice Pizza (3)
  • The Lost Daughter (3)
  • No Time to Die (3)
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth (3)
  • Cruella (2)
  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2)
  • Parallel Mothers (2)
  • tick, tick…Boom! (2)
  • The Worst Person in the World (2)
  • Affairs of the Art (1)
  • Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (1)
  • Ascension (1)
  • Attica (1)
  • Audible (1)
  • Bestia (1)
  • Boxballet (1)
  • Coming 2 America (1)
  • Cyrano (1)
  • The Dress (1)
  • Four Good Days (1)
  • Free Guy (1)
  • The Hand of God (1)
  • House of Gucci (1)
  • Lead Me Home (1)
  • The Long Goodbye (1)
  • Luca (1)
  • Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (1)
  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines (1)
  • On My Mind (1)
  • Please Hold (1)
  • The Queen of Basketball (1)
  • Raya and the Last Dragon (1)
  • Robin Robin (1)
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (1)
  • Spencer (1)
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home (1)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (1)
  • Three Songs for Benazir (1)
  • When We Were Bullies (1)
  • The Windshield Wiper (1)
  • Writing with Fire (1)

The 94th Academy Awards ceremony will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, on March 27th, 2022.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Going for the Gold(en Man): My Thoughts on This Year’s Oscar Nominations

I hope you’ll forgive me for a while as this blog transforms from The Voracious Bibliophile to The Voracious Cinephile. Although, to be fair, this blog has always had more than its fair share of film-related posts, so forgiveness is probably not needed. At any rate, tomorrow (which is also my BIRTHDAY!) we will find out this year’s Oscar nominees in all 23 categories. The contendahs (Marlon Brando, anyone?) will be announced live starting at 8:18 AM EST by Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan. What a delightful birthday present!

The Oscars are a bigger deal for me than Christmas.

The Oscars are a bigger deal for me than Christmas. I make a special punch. I have my own Oscar my father made for me several years ago sitting proudly atop my movie shelf. I buy all the magazines. I read all the articles. I look at the odds much like an itchy gambler at a racetrack. I stalk the Twitter feeds of the hopefuls. I attempt to watch all of the films themselves before the big night but sometimes availability is an issue. For example, I feel like chances are slim I’ll get to see Licorice Pizza before the big night. I am more caught up this year than in most of the past several years, probably because many of the hopeful nominees are streaming natives. There’s been loads of buzz for streaming films this year, a trend which seems to be going nowhere but up. Don’t Look Up, The Lost Daughter, The Power of the Dog, and tick, tick… Boom! all hail from Netflix. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and CODA are both denizens of Apple TV+. Being the Ricardos is the baby of Amazon Prime Video. As you can see, the field of Oscar hopefuls is simply verdant with streaming darlings.

He [Denzel Washington] somehow takes the Bard’s words and amplifies them from their original context into something even more powerful. He is expressive, multi-layered, and haunting in his portrayal of Macbeth, and the Academy would be remiss to not reward his work with a nomination for Best Actor.

I’m going to start with my strongest opinions and then work my way down. First of all, it will be an absolute tragedy if Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth isn’t nominated for Best Picture. It is incredibly difficult to transform such a familiar work of art into something that is both classic and contemporary. Let me just say here that this is some of Denzel Washington’s best work. He somehow takes the Bard’s words and amplifies them from their original context into something even more powerful. He is expressive, multi-layered, and haunting in his portrayal of Macbeth, and the Academy would be remiss to not reward his work with a nomination for Best Actor. Frances McDormand is no slouch as Lady Macbeth, either, and while I wouldn’t be surprised to see her name on the list of nominees for Best Actress, I am much more invested in Denzel.

While the Academy doesn’t always go along with them [the New York Film Critics Circle] in this category, the winners for both awards were the same for three of the past eleven years: Laura Dern for Marriage Story in 2019; Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018; and Patricia Arquette for Boyhood in 2014.

Likewise, I will personally send a letter of complaint to the Academy (the disposition of which I will leave up to their discretion) if Kathryn Hunter isn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her roles as the Witches and the Old Man. She is delightfully creepy and otherworldly and I hope the Academy takes notice. In her favor is the fact that she was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress. While the Academy doesn’t always go along with them in this category, the winners for both awards were the same for three of the past eleven years: Laura Dern for Marriage Story in 2019; Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018; and Patricia Arquette for Boyhood in 2014. Note: Laura Dern was awarded by the New York Film Critics Circle for her performances in both Little Women and Marriage Story.

Kristen Stewart was considered the front-runner for the longest time for her performance as Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, but now there is talk that she may not even be nominated.

For me and it seems a lot of other critics and movie lovers, the Best Actress race is the most fraught right now. Kristen Stewart was considered the front-runner for the longest time for her performance as Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, but now there is talk that she may not even be nominated. Talk about a dramatic turnaround. It’s somewhat annoying for the simple fact that this wouldn’t be Stewart’s first time being snubbed by the Academy. She was the first American actress to win the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Clouds of Sils Maria, and what did she get from the Academy? Crickets. For the past decade, she’s been churning out stellar performances in films one right after the other. See: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), mentioned above, Still Alice (2014), Certain Women (2016), Personal Shopper (2016), Seberg (2019), and now Spencer (2021). When will the Academy stand up and take notice? This year should be the year, and shame on them if it’s not.

I don’t know many actresses with the chutzpah to take on Lucille Ball, especially since we have so much of Ball’s own screen work to use for comparison and judgment. Kidman isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, however, and she sinks her teeth into the life and work of the Queen of Comedy with aplomb and panache.

Also on my radar for the Best Actress race are Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) and Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos). Actually, I was all but certain the award was Stewart’s until I watched Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. In my review of the film, which you can read here, I said that Colman (along with Gyllenhaal) had gifted us with “one of the most honest depictions of motherhood ever seen in any medium”, and I stand by that assessment. Kidman is a darker horse. We know from her past work that she is quite adept at playing historical figures and real-life individuals. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002). I don’t know many actresses with the chutzpah to take on Lucille Ball, especially since we have so much of Ball’s own screen work to use for comparison and judgment. Kidman isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, however, and she sinks her teeth into the life and work of the Queen of Comedy with aplomb and panache.

A more streamlined script [for Being the Ricardos] could have catapulted Kidman all the way to the stage to accept her second Oscar.

On the other hand, I was not a fan of Sorkin’s script and Javier Bardem’s turn as Desi Arnaz. Both have received mostly positive reviews from critics but I have to diverge from the pack here. Sorkin’s script is clunky and cluttered. A more streamlined script could have catapulted Kidman all the way to the stage to accept her second Oscar. Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz is not believable at all. I knew I was watching Javier Bardem the whole time. It’s a delicate balance when you’re playing a real-life figure to not veer into caricature, and with Bardem that’s what I felt like I was watching. Not so with Kidman. Because they’re in so many scenes together, naturally, his lackluster performance distracts from hers. I honestly don’t see her winning, but I hope she is at least nominated.

Considering the race for Best Director this year, it is possible (and only right) that there are two women on the ballot: Jane Campion and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal displayed an incredible amount of directorial talent with The Lost Daughter, and it’s safe to say that this won’t be the last film where she’s in the director’s chair. But I’m going to have to say that if there is any justice in the world, Jane Campion will take home the Oscar for Best Director for The Power of the Dog. Campion was previously recognized for her 1993 period drama The Piano, for which she was nominated for Best Director and won for Best Original Screenplay.

No matter what happens, I think this is going to be one of the most interesting Oscars we’ve had in a long time. Without further ado, here are my personal picks for the following eight races: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Best Picture

  • Belfast
  • CODA
  • Drive My Car
  • Dune
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • West Side Story

Best Director

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
  • Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car

Best Actor

  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Peter Dinklage, Cyrano
  • Andrew Garfield, tick, tick… Boom!
  • Will Smith, King Richard
  • Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Supporting Actor

  • Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza
  • Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
  • Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Best Actress

  • Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
  • Frances McDormand, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Best Supporting Actress

  • Caitríona Balfe, Belfast
  • Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
  • Ann Dowd, Mass
  • Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Original Screenplay

  • Belfast
  • Don’t Look Up
  • The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • CODA
  • Dune
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.